Turning on the television to see the new season of the award-winning Breaking Bad, I was presented with a curious spectacle. It looked like Mexico, and a dusty old man is crawling across the desert ground. Is he trying to escape from something or someone? A drug gang maybe? He’s clearly not that happy and yet cars, villagers, and chickens walk past him. The camera pans out and he’s not alone. Scores of Mexicans now are crawling across the dusty village, on their bellies, inching painfully forward with their elbows, like some form of spastic human-bat hybrid. A flash car draws up and two young men with shaved heads in expensive suits get out. They look around them, and then bizarrely, also get down on their stomachs and start crawling in the same direction as the villagers. I noticed that on their black patent leather boots they had silver skulls on the toe of each boot…
They are all crawling towards an adobe hut, festooned with flowers. It’s a shrine of some sort. Inside, there are dozens of candles and small statues of skulls. There is a large statue, a ghostly apparition of death that seems to have been assembled from Paganism crossed with Catholicism, a zombie Mary Magdalene. The smartly dressed men rise and place something next to the statue, it’s a name of someone that they are calling upon this saint to help them find, and kill. The saint is Santa Muerte. Saint Death. Holy Death. I was intrigued and started researching…
This article looks at the relationship between Momento Mori, Santa Muerte and the Mexican Drug Cartels.
Memento Mori is latin, and means “Remember that you must die”. It is also used to describe an object, such as a skull, used for worship, as a reminder as to human mortality and the inevitability of death. It is thought that the phrase originated in ancient Rome when a general, Consul, Prelate or other high-ranking official was celebrating his triumph through the streets of Rome, a trusted slave would walk behing him saying “Memento mori“… reminding him that he may be high and mighty and grand today, but tomorrow he could be dead.
Santa Muerte means “Saint Death” or “Holy Death”. It is usually depicted in drawings, paintings and statues as a sacred feminine skeletal figure often in a shroud, a cowl or robes.
Dia de Los Muertos “Day of the Dead” is a Mexican celebration that takes place on 1-2 November, coinciding with the Catholic Church’s All Saints/Soul’s Day. It’s the day after Walpurgisnacht, Halloween, All Hallows Eve, 31 October. Skulls and skeletons made from sweets are exchanged. Its origins can be traced back to an Aztec Festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (pictured below).
Memento Mori were evident in early medieval europe, usually depicting divine judgement upon death in Christianity. “Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” is used in services for Ash Wednesday and is a classic memento mori expression. Another, from the Bible is “in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.” (Ecclesiasticus 7:40)
For physical manifestations of memento mori, these are abundant in funeral art and architecture, such as cadaver tombs; tombs that depicts the decayed body of the deceased. This became popular in Victorian England and earlier with Puritan tombs in the United States fashion in the tombs that boasted winged skulls, skeletons, or angels extinguishing candles. There are lots of examples of such tombs at one of the two Highgate Cemeteries (the one that is normally closed, but open a few days a year for tours and visitors- well worth a visit- especially the Catacoombs where Bram Stoker gort the inspiration for his novel “Dracula”.
Clocks are also reminders of Memento Mori… time ticking away till your demise. German 18th century mechanical clocks had a death figure striking the hours. Others had the latin for “Time Flies” (or flees)- Tempus Fugit. The arts too had many references, in poems, songs, plays, books and music- and not just funeral music. If you want to get up close and personal in a poem, try Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, that contains these oft-quoted stanzas:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
and in Coleridge’s Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, it is death that stalks us:
Like one that on a lonesome road Doth walk in fear and dread, And having once turned round walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread.
Relationship to Mexico
Much memento mori art is associated with the Mexican festival the Day of the Dead which involves skull-shaped candies and bread loaves adorned with bread “bones.”
Many of Mexico’s poorest Catholics count themselves among the devotees of a skeletal woman saint called La Santa Muerte, or the Saint of Death. Members of Mexico’s notorious drug cartels have been known to construct private shrines to “the white lady” in their mansions. Now the government of Mexico has begun destroying public Santa Muerte shrines—more than thirty of them in the last year—as an act of psychological warfare in their battle against the cartels.
The Santa Muerte cult is certainly anti-establishment and at first blush appears to glorify criminal behavior. Although not all members of the cult are criminals, all live an existence that is dominated by crime. The cult seems to be linked closely to prisons, prisoners, and family members of prisoners. There are many shrines to Santa Meurte, but these are becoming less public (because they attract the attention of the Police) and so secret shrines are being found in private houses, shops and even in hidden away rooms at the back of Catholic churches. Most prisoners are allowed a small effigy of Santa Muerte in their cells.
On 12 March last year the Sonora State Police arrested eight people for murder of a woman and two ten year old boys. There was evidence that they had been killed as a sacrifice to Santa Muerte to find favour with her.
In the late 2000s, the founder of Mexico City’s first Santa Muerte church, David Romo, estimated that there were around 5 million devotees to the cult in Mexico, constituting approximately 5% of the country’s population. It has now spread northwards to parts of the United States.
While not a fully developed religion, Santa Muerte has self-proclaimed priests, temples and shrines, and many ritualized elements. So what do the Catholic Church make of all this? While the cult was tolerated for a while, provided Mexican catholics continued to pray to other Saints, such as Saint Jude, the links with crime have made the Vatican step in. The Vatican has deemed the cult blasphemous and a “degeneration of religion”. The Catholic Church points to satanism, black magic, devil-worshipping and idolatry as being rife among Santa Muerte followers, but stops short of excommunicating followers, or branding them heretics. But this largely falls on deaf ears for those who see no problem in following the teachings of Christ, and also the cult of Santa Muerte.
Santa Muerte rituals vary, and worshipers disagree about some of the symbolism and the proper procedures to gain the spiritual and physical results petitioned. However, adherents generally consider Santa Muerte a jealous and vengeful deity who demands that her followers conduct the rituals and sacrifices properly to avoid her divine wrath. Candle magic, herbs, oils, amulets, spiritual energy, and various mystical items play an important role. She also does not tolerate worship of other Catholic Saints according to some adherents, making it obvious why the Vatican see this a dangerous cult.
Non-drug cartel ritual killings are common: In the rough neighborhood of Tepito, Mexico City, in 2004, authorities arrested a local car thief who later died in prison. A powerful (non-narco) criminal figure, he killed virgins and babies once a year and offered them as sacrifices to Santa Muerte to gain her favor and magical protection. In Ciudad Júarez in 2008, authorities found decapitated and stacked bodies at crime scenes in five separate incidents. Links were inferred to Santa Muerte worshipers. In July 2011 in Ciudad Júarez, Mexican police discovered a skeleton dressed as a bride at a Santa Muerte altar in a house used to hold kidnap victims for ransom.
In the macho world of Mexico, one might be forgiven for thinking that the only woman allowed in the Santa Muerte cult would be the dark lady herself. But no. Yolanda Salazar is a priestess of the Santa Muerte cult in Ciudad Juarez. Salazar lives in and runs a Santa Muerte sanctuary, which is located in the heart of the city, just a drive of a few minutes from the border with the United States. She says:
“Here in Juárez, people pray for protection, but also health, and for love. What’s important is it comes from the heart. If your intentions are true, it will help you.”
She had just a handful of followers in 2010, when she first opened her Santa Muerte sanctuary, where there are over 100 small and large statues of Santa Muerte. Now, her weekly prayer vigils to Santa Muerte draw in a crowd larger than the local Catholic church for Mass. She will soon need bigger premises, such is the growth of the cult. “That stuff’s for sicarios — for killers!” said one of her worshippers,explaining what her family thinks of the cult vigils she attends every weekend.
Links to Drug Cartels
The Mexican authorities find the cult linked to drug trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, kidnapping and homicide. Altars with images of Santa Muerte have been found in many drug houses in both North Mexico and the United States. Simple appeals to the saint are for a rival to be caught or killed, to escape the law, and to bring luck and good business. More morbidly some appeal to her for a “clean” death. She is seen as the Saint of Last Resort. When you have been abandoned by all the “normal” catholic saints (or choose to ignore them) Santa Muerte will be there for you, in life and in death.
Many organised gangs, including those at the top of the organisation right down to foot soldiers respect and pray to Santa Muerte. Two gangs have been found to have direct links- the Gulf Cartel (headed by boss Gilberto Garcia Mena pictured here) and the Mara Salvatrucha.
Worship of Santa Muerte was documented in the 1940s mainly in Mexico City but it first came to mainstream popular attention in Mexico in August 1998, when police arrested gangster Daniel Arizmenmdi Lopez (pictured below) and discovered a shrine to the saint in his home. This was widely reported in the press and led to even more notoriety for Saint Death. During the operation, the arresting officers found Arizmendi hiding in his bathroom, where he had constructed an altar to Santa Muerte. Arizmendi asked the arresting officers for permission to take the statue with him; they granted the request. He took the statue with him when he was remanded to the La Palma Maximum Security Prison!
The narcotics wars in Mexico have increased in scope and intensity since President Felipe Caldéron’s December 2006 de facto declaration of war against the cartels and gangs. Since this conflict began, over 45,000 people have died in the fighting, and although there have been some successes, there are large areas of Mexico that are virtually under the sole control of the cartels. As always, the cartels hold their sway of the local population by a mixture of fear and generosity (ie protection from other cartels and the Police, plus small gifts and events for the people). Because the cartel bosses have so much money and influence, it is thought by many poorer people that they surely have Santa Muerte in their pay (or at least on their side) and this just adds to the bosses perceived untouchable nature.
There is a read-across from the gladiators of ancient Rome, who fought, sometimes to the death, for their Ludus and their Dominus (owner). Glory in their short life or a glorious death in the arena were what they hungered for. For most of the cartels’ foot soldiers and their gang associates, short lives and brutal deaths are highly likely. This imminent mortality makes the worship of Santa Muerte not a joyous affair, but spiritually dark. Control or be controlled. Kill or be killed. With the stakes so high, the sacrifices and offerings to Santa Muerte have become primeval and barbaric. Whereas it used to be offerings of food, beer, and tobacco, the offerings have become much more morbid, including the heads of victims or even sacrificed members of their own gang, in order to show how serious the worship is, and presumably, how serious and powerful the expected blessing will be.
Cartel killings and links to Santa Muerte are widespread:
During 2008 in Nuevo Laredo, Gulf Cartel enforcers captured Sinaloa Cartel members, took them to public Santa Muerte shrines, and executed them. Analysis by a U.S. law enforcement officer suggests that the perpetrators killed them as offerings to Santa Muerte.
In April 2010 in Camargo and Miguel Aleman, perpetrators tortured and decapitated individuals, carved the letter “Z” into their chests, and placed the victims’ heads on the roof of a desecrated, graffiti-covered roadside chapel. Based on the graffiti messages, the victims belonged to the Gulf Cartel. The perpetrators comprised members of the Los Zetas Cartel, which has embraced Santa Muerte as its patron saint. Many of the group’s members have tattoos of her image on their upper arm or chest.
In Culiacan in January 2010, a suspect placed a decapitated head by the tomb of deceased cartel leader Arturo Beltran Levya. Earlier, after Beltran Levya was killed in his apartment, authorities found items related to the cult of Santa Muerte, suggesting that one of his former fellow gang members may have presented the head as an offering.
In a recent undercover investigation, a news reporter cobducted an interview with a Cartel hit man, and was told about the relationship between La Nina, “La Flaca” the skinny one; Santa Muerte, and his profession. He doubles as a grocery store owner. He said that when he is not acting for the cartel, he does one-off killings on behalf of the Saint to encourage more people to worship her (and presumably increase his business). He said he needed a full-body photo of the victim. After the murder he will cut up the body and bury it in seven different cemeteries. He says he is working for the Saint of Death.
He says he has to maintain lit candles in his shrine to her, night and day, saying that Saint Death is very jealous and can turn on you if she thinks you are deserting her. If she becomes angry, you may have to kill and offer sacrifices to her to placate her. As for his links to the cartel, he says many of the drug lords don’t really believe in Santa Muerte, but what’s to lose if you pay her and her cult lip service? At worst you waste some kilos of cocaine or a few thousand dollars at a shrine, but at best, you’ll evade the law and get one over on your rival drug cartels. And then there’s the fear. If people in other cartels who do believe, think that you have her on your side, then they’re going to be running scared.
Conclusions and Forward Look
One of the US greatest fears is that the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take root and then spread in the United States. With a high hispanic population, many of who are poor, the attractions of Santa Muerte seem tangible and possibly represent a way out of poverty and into power and wealth. In fact that’s already happening.
Despite condemnation from the church, law enforcement agencies and the Governments of both the US and Mexico, no one believes Santa Muerte is going anywhere anytime soon. It is spreading. There are reports of secret shrines in San Francisco, Oregon and even across to Baltimore and Boston.
Finally, back to Breaking Bad. Gregory Beasley Jr., 35, believes he landed acting roles in the series and the 2008 movie “Linewatch” after a traditional Mexican-American healer introduced him to La Santa Muerte. It’s where fact and fiction and fantasy combine. In these times you ignore Santa Muerte at your peril…
It sounds like something out of Star Wars or a 1950’s Ray Bradbury Sci-Fi story, but it’s true. The Japanese have invented, built and now successfully tested (on earth) a space cannon, with the intention of- wait for it- shooting an asteroid.
It’s called the Hayabusa 2 and will be launched into space next year. It’s first target is not just any old asteroid, it will be aiming at asteroid 1999 JU3. The intention is to create a crater for gathering mineral samples.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has reported that the mission “is progressing as planned”, and is still on track to arrive at the asteroid in 2018. The asteroid is in a stable orbit inbetween earth and Mars.
When it arrives the cannon which actually detach from the mothership, where it will travel to the other side of the asteroid before detonating itself. Once in position close to the asteroid, the space cannon will detach itself and remotely fire a 4lb metal projectile into the surface of the miniature planet. The mothercraft will then land on the asteroid and collect samples that have been disturbed from underneath the surface of the asteroid. The previous ship, Hayabusa 1 skimmed material from the surface of an asteroid and successfully returned to earth. This latest project will hopefully expose valuable minerals from inside the asteroid, ones that are usually not available.
“the potential to revolutionise our understanding of pristine materials essential to understanding the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life,”
It’s natural to think of an extension of this project being able to blast open or throw off course any large asteroid that might be heading towards earth. The next potantially world-ending asteroid id expected about 2032.
Unfortunately, the cannon is nowhere near large enough to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. We’ve only got less than a couple of decades to sort something out for that. Ine idea being considered is a giant catapault in space to launch a large captured asteroid towards any incoming body. Being in space, the velocity of the launched asteroid will remain constant until it impacts aginst the invader. But one problem has been the corrosive effect of space on elastic and rubber. So perhaps we’re back to just building a much bigger space cannon. Hayabusa 3 anyone?
You may well have heard of Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and Area 51 aliens… but the Slender Man Monster?
The Slender Man started life in 2009 as a 100% fictional character created on the Internet by user Victor Surge on the Something Awful forums. It is depicted as a thin, unnaturally tall man with a blank and featureless face, and wearing a black suit. The Slender Man is commonly said to stalk, abduct, or traumatize people, with a penchant for children.
On June 10, a forum poster with the user name “Victor Surge” displayed two black and white images of groups of children, to which he added a tall, thin spectral figure wearing a black suit. The Slender Man. Surge supplemented his submission with snatches of text, supposedly from witnesses, describing the abductions of the groups of children, and giving the character the name, “The Slender Man”
The Slender Man soon went viral, scary stories told in short snatches of easily copyable text were contributed that spread across the net. In 2012, the Slender Man was adapted into a video game titled Slender: The Eight Pages. The game has been downloaded over 2 million times. Several popular variants of the game followed, including Slenderman’s Shadow and Slender Man for iOS, which became the second most-popular app download. Several non-Hollywood independent films about the Slender Man have been released or are in development, including Entity and The Slender Man, released free online after a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign. In 2013, it was announced that Marble Hornets would become a theatrical film.
Inevitably, there are those who now claim that The Slender Man is real. He has been spotted in woods near the North American/Canadian border, and also in mid-West towns, near playgrounds and schools, after dark.
There have been some attempted abductions of children in Maryland by someone described as as tall as a basketball player, very thin, and wearing a black suit and a mask similar to that worn by the Elephant Man. Sadly, it seems that someone with the extra “y” chromosome (making a man tall, thin and prone to aggression) has decided to make a reality out of a myth.
You’ve probably heard the expression “My Goodness, is that the time? I must be Going!” With this new wrist watch, you may still be saying that, but you may be “going” to the after-life. It’s a watch that countdowns to when you will die. Nice. At anytime you can’t glance down and see how many more years, months, days and hours you have left on earth.
The Tikker, or “death watch” if you prefer counts down how much time you have left until Mr G. Reaper Esq parks his cloak and scythe in your passage and awaits you to complete your final preparations for paying the Ferryman. You may remember that there was a website that did the same thing, well here you have your life-line there on your wrist. Tick, tick, ticking away your span of life, like one of the Three Fates.
How do you “wind up your life into the watch in the first place? There’s some bureaucracy. Yes, even planning for death requires you to fill out a questionnaire with information about your medical history, weight, lifestyle details such as if you drink or smoke and how often you exercise. Add to that information about any diseases that may run in your family, plus any predictions given to you by de facto claivoyants, seers, sages, and horoscopes. All these are factored in, and number-crunched and hey presto! You are given a score representing your entire lifespan including the years you have already lived or squandered. After your current age is deducted from this score, the Death watch is primed and the countdown to mortality commences.
The manufacturers claim that this is an uplifting accessory. It’s not about how much time you have till you shuffle off this mortal coil, but is an encouragement to do great things with the time you have left. How it makes you feel if you’re waiting for hours in an airport terminal waiting for the fog to clear whilst your life is visibly ticking away seems no fun at all. But at least it’s cheap. Not life, I mean the watch. $40 for a basic design and up to $1000 for a custom designed one. Hurry… The grains of time are slipping away…. Not sure if you get a refund if you die before your allotted time!
We all know how close we came to getting wiped off the solar system map before we even made an appearance on earth, when an asteroid smashed into earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. Curiously it was that close shave that actually enabled mammals, and eventually humans, to become the dominant species on earth.
But it seems another planet out there might have not had such a lucky escape as out own: Astronomers studying a dying star have discovered the mashed-up remains of a water-rich asteroid. This suggests that hundreds of millions of years ago that start system may have harboured a “goldilocks” planet, with conditions not disimilar to our own, that could well have had intelligent life on it. The research appears in the latest issue of the journal Science.
Given that the conditions for life to have flourished on earth are so rare, and must include water and an atmosphere, to find evidence that there seems to have been another planet at one time, is both uplifting and concerning. Uplifting in that it may point to us not being alone in the Universe, concerning for two reasons: What happened to the inhabitants- unless they were sufficiently advanced to develop interstellar travel, they would have perished when their sun went through the final cycles of its life. Scientists believe that the star would most likely have had a number of planets in its system before the star, expanded to become a red giant, burning everything on any planets, and then shrinking and eventually going cold.
This is also the likely fate of our planet, assuming we don’t get hit by another giant asteroid. Our sun too will become a red giant and then a white dwarf, and finally a black dwarf- a dead star emitting no heat.
Astronomers studying the light emitted by the asteroid, known as GD 61, located 150 light years away from the Earth, detected an abundance of “rocky” elements such as magnesium, silicon and iron. They also found oxygen in quantities that indicated a very large amount of water. Only a water-rich massive asteroid, or minor planet, can explain the observations. GD61, at least 90 kilometres in diameter, would have been drawn in by the white dwarf’s powerful gravity and ripped apart. It is highly likely that rocky, water-covered, Earth-like planets also existed in the system.
Dr Jay Farihi, from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, said:
“The finding of water in a large asteroid means the building blocks of habitable planets existed – and maybe still exist – in the GD 61 system, and likely also around substantial number of similar parent stars. These water-rich building blocks, and the terrestrial planets they build, may in fact be common – a system cannot create things as big as asteroids and avoid building planets, and GD 61 had the ingredients to deliver lots of water to their surfaces. Our results demonstrate that there was definitely potential for habitable planets in this exoplanetary system.”
Nostradamus was, of course, the Godfather of Prophecies, but when you look closely at his words, there’s a fair amount of fudging, fiddling and “I think he must have meant this..” in order to make them fit later events. That got me to thinking what have been the most accurate predictions/prophecies/gazings into the future? Here are a three of the ones that seem uncanny, and inexplicable. Please note that Dynamo:Magician Impossible does not appear on the list!
John Elfreth Watkins Junior was a civil engineer on the US railroads until an injury forced him into another career path- that of curator of the Smithsonian Institute. In 1900 he wrote a piece for a journal, entitling it “What may Happen in the Next 100 years”
While not all his predictions were accurate, you don’t have to twist his words much at all to see that when he said:
“Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later . . . . photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colors.”
That’s digital photography and image sharing nailed! He also predicted a form of internet, satellite television, freeze-dried foods and refrigerators. Pity he died just three years later and saw none of these predictions come true!
Ray Kurzweil, born in 1948, is an author, inventor, futurist and much more besides. In December 2012 Kurzweil was hired by Google in a full-time position to “work on new projects involving machine learning and language processing”…He is the current Director of Engineering there. His success rate for predicting the future is astonishing. Take for example predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union by 1991, a computer regularly and consistently beating the best grandmaster human at chess by 2000, wireless internet by the early 2000s.
He has been found, by independent sources to be accurate in his predictions 86% of the time. He believes that 20 to 25 years from now, we will have millions of blood-cell sized devices, known as nanobots inside our bodies fighting against diseases, improving our memory, and cognitive abilities. But stemming on from this, one of my favourite predictions is that within this century we will have conquered death, and become immortal. Nice… if you want to live forever!
Is it a “B” sci-fi/horror movie. Following in the footsteps “The Swarm” and “Attack of the Killer Bees”, we have Chinese Killer Hornets. But this is true and happening now.Vespa Mandarinia – the Asian Giant Hornet- measures no less than 5 centimetres, over twice as large as the largest other hornet. And it’s a killer. As big as an adult’s thumb.
Yu Yihong in China’s north-western province, was tending his small plot of cabbages and onions when theasian giant hornets struck. He was attacked and stung and when taken to hospital he had two hornets still in his trousers. The poison causaed his liver and kidneys to fail and he died. His account of his attack, before he died, is horrific. He accidentally trod on a nest of the hornets concealed beneath some corn husks. They swarmed up around him stinging mercilessle and then when he ran a considerable distance away, they refused to let him go and followed him to get their revenge for upsetting their nest.
The sting of this species of hornet dissloves human tissue, and kidney failure or anaphalactic shock often follows. Was this a one-off? No. Attacks by the Asian Giant Hornet are becoming more and more common. In China’s Shaanxi province, nearly fifty people have been stung to death in just three months. Hundreds of others have suffred stings and injuries due to this hornet.
As with many other woes, the rise of the killer hornets is being blamed on climate change, and a warm winter which allowed many more queens to survive and spread. They can fly much faster than a man can run over a distance; 25mph, and cover 50 miles. Apart from defending their nests they can also be attracted by sweet smells, alcohol or sweat.
As word spreads about the killer hornets, roads and schools have been closed, there are large swathes of no-go areas- farms where crops are unattended because of nearby nests. In retaliation, pest control officers go out at night to sighted nests and exterminate them with… yes, you should have guessed it… flamethrowers! But it seems they are fighting a losing battle and the problem is spreading.
While it may seem not feasible for the Asian Giant Hornet to spread to Europe, its smaller cousin, Vespa Velutina the (non-giant) Asian Hornet has already spread from Korea to France in 2003 and has been responsible for a number of deaths. It has since spread to Spain Belgium and Portugal.
Watch out- this looks like a killer hornet that isn’t going to buzz off any time soon. In one close shave, a quick-thinking worker used his can of butane lighter refil and a lighter to creata a mini flamethrower and keep the hornets at bay.
We’ve come a long way since the speaking clock, but transactions over the phone or online can still sometimes be frustrating affairs. Endless options repeated just to get your bank balance, and not having a 24 hour service can be a pain. But if you want to ask something, anything about the new BMW electric car, the i3, you’ll get a swift and expert response… from a computer. The BMW I genius is a remarkable programme, known as “The Brain”.
Dimitry Aksenov, 21 years old, founded technology company London Brand Management in 2011. The company provides an AI service for big companies who want to outsource customer/staff interactions to computers.
BMW UK marketing director Chris Brownridge said:
“BMW I Genius is capable of understanding each question and responding accurately every time as if you were talking to an expert from the company. The system operates around the clock, allowing the consumer to ask any question relating to the “i” cars but without the hassle of having to pick up the phone or go into a dealership.”
Not only can the computer recognise the question, and provide an answer. It does it within three seconds. It reads and recognises keywords, as well as understanding context, and learns about you during the exchange and is capable of having a meaningful conversation as well as providing answers to questions about the car.
LBM’s system is cloud-based, and so it can be accessed from anywhere . It can deal with thousands of enquiries simultaneously, and its database has a virtually unlimited memory capacity. It’s the equivalent of having hundreds or even thousands of call centre staff, with the added advamtage that it remembers and learns, and there is no downtime. Much better then than our human brain?
Aksenov provides the technology to brands under licence with a one-off implementation fee to “teach” the system. Unlike hiring humans, the AI only has to learn once and that’s it for good. He said:
“Within five years we will have a system that truly knows more than a human could ever know and is more efficient at delivering information. It will replace many of the boring jobs that are currently done by humans. Unfortunately, this may take some jobs from the economy by replacing human beings with a machine. But it is the future.”
Financed by the European Union’s cognition unit (€8.5m) iCub is a robot with an impressive AI. It has has sophisticated motor skills, which include the ability to grasp and manipulate objects. However, unlike other “programmed” robots, iCub acquires its skills naturally, using its body to sense, then gbather information and then explore the world. This is of course similar to the way a two-year-old baby learns and interracts with the environment around it. That may be why iCub has a baby-like face.
iCub is not a single entitiy anymore; a creche of 25 iCubs have been rolled out to centres across Europe, the US and Japan who are collaborating in the programme. Most specialise in some aspect of AI/robotics, such as Dominey’s facility in Lyon, where they are concentrating on iCub’s ability to interact with humans on shared tasks through language and action. Others focus on the more practical side of manipulation of objects.
All the various parts of this series of ambitious projects are connected by using how a baby/child learns as he or she grows and advances . By 18 months, a human can already understand the gesture to pick up a pencil. This is not about language (at least not to begin with). Young children are born equipped to explore their environment and interact and co-operate with their parents before they can speak or understand speech. These social developmental drives are built into iCub’s operating system. Then, it’s simply a question of interacting with iCub and letting its own body and sensors guide it. Using a bow and arrow? No problem!
Through repetitive play, one team has taught iCub to distinguish a stuffed toy octopus from a purple car, this despite iCub never having seen the objects before. New gestures are learned by grasping iCub’s arm and rotating it in a certain way. These are then recorded in its autobiographical memory. Consequently next time it can make the gesture without being prompted. In the same way iCub can be taught new words and concepts, by through interacting with its human tutor, much in a way a baby interracts with its mother during play.
Recent developments include a touch-sensitive skin to enhance iCub’s ability to gauge when it is getting too close to an object and is in danger of hitting it. This is onviously a prerequisite for persuading people that it is safe to interact with robots at close quarters!
Watch out for more news about iCub as it learns and grows- perhaps into an iWolf?
Recent research points to organ transplants becoming a thing of the past, and that those missing limbs can throw away their prosthetics. These breakthroughs are firstly that scientists have grown stem cells in a living animal for the first time, and that Sea Squirts might hold the key to limb regeneration. A very significant step, the research on mice could pave the way for damaged human limbs or organs being regrown inside patients. Back in the day (well, very recently actually,) Scientists had taken strides in what is known as regenerative medicine by taking cells out of the body, treating them in the lab and then putting the regenerated cells back.However, this latest study has seen researchers develop pluripotent stem cells in the kidney, stomach, intestine and pancreas of mice.
It’s a Spanish study and the lead authour of the article in the publication Nature, Maria Abad, said:
‘Our stem cells also survive outside of mice, in a culture, so we can also manipulate them in a laboratory. This change of direction in development has never been observed in nature.’
Prof Chris Mason, of University College London, called the research the
‘beginning of limb regeneration’. ‘The ultimate goal is regrow an arm or a limb but it is very early on in that route. But it is very significant and could have a massive impact on cell therapies. For instance, being able to treat cells within the body would reduce the costs of cell treatment significantly.’
We are certainly not there yet. What you’re getting with one hand nature seems to be taking back with the other: The technique in its present form has caused some of the mice to develop cancer-like tumours.
Turning to aquatic allies, the closest relative we humans have in the vast panoply of invertebrate species that blanket the earth is a tiny, unassuming marine set of animals called Sea Squirts or Tunicates. Get a load of this; they are able to regenerate their damaged tissue from their blood vessels alone.
Scientists believe that this odd characteristic may hold the genetic secrets that might eventually allow humans to regrow a lost arm, or accept a heart from someone else without danger of rejection. Up till now it’s been seen largely as a pest because it can foul up beaches, boats, and kill crabs, oysters and many other species of sea-life. It thrives in polluted harbours.
It is believed to have been the first invertebrate to have a vasculature heart system, similar to that in humans, with blood cells traveling through blood vessels. But astonishingly, it can regrow everything just with its blood vessels.
Ayelet Voskoboynik of Stanford University’s Stem Cell Institute and an international team of scientists have just sequenced the genome of one species of this Sea Squirt; Botryllus schlosseri. The hope is that once scientists understand how the genes operate in the animal, they will be able to come up with new treatments for a wide range of human diseases. The researchers found that over three quarters of human genes were also present in Botryllus schlosseri.
The reserachers see possibilities of cures for heart diseases, cataracts, and deafness. So perhaps we should think twice before scraping off the orange muck from the bottom of our boats, or the harbour wall at low tide.
Some are heralding it as a greater achievement than man landing on the moon. Others as a snapshot of an era many people would like us to forget- the naff Seventies.
Launched in 1977, the first Voyager was sent out into our solar system to study the outer planets, but then just kept on going. After taking some amazing snaps of storms on Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, the li’l metallic critter kept on going. Now the veteran Nasa mission is almost 19 billion km (12 billion miles) from home. It takes 17 hours now for a radio signal sent from Voyager to reach Earth.
One wonders what aliens would make of Voyager if they came across it, for two reasons: Firstly the technology, secondly our choice of cultural enrichment on board. The craft’s technology was laughable by today’s standards: It carried an 8-track tape recorder and computers with 240,000 times less memory than a low-end i-phone. It had a record, but no record player. It was launched from earth in 1977, the same year that the first Star Wars film was being screened. There is nothing physical that has travelled further from earth:
…but would an alien species laugh at our primitiveness- like early man throwing a bone up into the skies (thank you 2001:A Space Odyssey) and find our species and our world juicy targets for assault?
Even if they weren’t particularly hostile to other species, the content on board could turn any alien from benign and sublime to a warlike state because of our crimes against galactic culture. There is a gold plated audio-visual disc on board that, apart from showing what science we knew in 1977, has some music and images. Including Jimmy Carter. How about the presence of a blues song from Blind Willie Johnson? That should cheer up our extra-terrestrial observers no end. Then there’s Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode included, a vacuous tale of transient musical success by a plank-spanking hill-billy, topped off by some pretentious piece by Look-How-Clever-I-Am child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus “Too Many Notes” Mozart. Finally there’s some ambient nonsense comprising whale noises and the sound of the amazon rainforest at dawn… is that the sound of buzz-saws and helicopters?
I am, of course, being catty and churlish. It could have been a lot worse. The next President of the USA was Ronald Reagan. And thank heavens we didn’t have VHS videos of appalling US and UK sitcoms to bung in the craft. Tom Sellick as Magnum, JR in Dallas, and early-mid period Dr Who with Jon Pertwee.
But it did get me to thinking. If we could have sent a message out to the stars in earlier times, what would it have said about the condition of the human race? What message would be put on board: Imagine an austere protestant/pilgrim fathers 17th century craft sent from a joint UK/America project. Or something sent by the Nazis towards the end of the Second World War. Or even a probe sent by a chemically posioned war-torn community in the Middle East asking for help from beyond our Solar System…
But back to facts: Voyager has about another 10 years of its journey to nowhere to broadcast its signal. The power will then fail and it will then just continue on at the same speed and the same trajectory forever, or until it is picked up by an alien culture. Let’s just hope they look at Voyager 1 as a professor emeritus may look at a crude child’s comic… and ignore it and us, and leave us to stumble on unhindered and unaided into the next chapter in our glorious civilisation. I wonder what we’d put on Voyager 3 when we send it from our colony in Mars in 2525?
AI-2013 is the thirty-third Annual International Conference of the influential and respected British Computer Society’s Specialist Group on Artificial Intelligence (SGAI), which will (again) be held in Peterhouse College, Cambridge, England.
As in previous years, the Conference is aimed at those who wish to update themselves with news and views of recent developments, understand how other groups are applying the technology and exchange ideas with leading international experts in the field. It will continue to be a meeting place for the international artificial intelligence community. The scope of the conference includes the whole range of AI technologies and application areas. Its principal aims are to review recent technical advances in AI technologies and to show how this leading edge technology has been applied to solve business and other problems.
A feature of previous conferences has been what is known as “the technical stream”. This is where the best most recent developments in AI are presented and discussed. This stream covers knowledge based systems, machine learning, verification and validation of AI systems, neural networks, genetic algorithms, natural language understanding and data mining. One of the most anticipated lectures to be given will be on neurodynamics and creativity, given by Prof. Murray Shanahan (Imperial College, London).
The conference is where there is a meeting of minds (and sometimes healthy disagreements) about all aspects of AI. We anticipate some headline AI material being published before the end of the year as a result of this conference. Watch this space!
Travel to Mars? Then stay there till you die? Personally, I’d prefer to stay at home put my feet up and watch the excellent John Carpenter film “Ghosts of Mars”. But many thousands of people think differently and have paid an application fee to be considered to join Mars One, the $6-billion project that plans to establish a permanent human colony on Mars in twelve years time. 165,000 people have applied, from more than 140 countries. And nearly 5% of those applying are Canadians. Is life really that boring in Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg?
Mars One was conceived by Dutch Entrepreneur Bas Landlorp. The plan is for a first group to establish the colony in 2025 with just four settlers. Then additional groups would travel mout every couple of years. But even if the thought of living out the rest of your life in a tank on an airless planet doesn’t worry you, there are pther significant risks. Such as a launch disaster, a component malfunction during the journey, a disaster at touch-down, or problems with the air conditioning.
Many of those applying are doing it for altruistic reasons, such as the furtherance of mankind, and the development of space travel and planet colonisation. There are also those who want to plant the flag of their particular country or be the first to pray to their God on Mars and so bring glory and recognition. Then there are others who will fall at the first hurdle when trying to establish the sanity of applicants. For example one applicant known only as Collin, 26, from Canada chose to submit a full video poem, which included these verses:
“I am a scientist, adventurer, wizard and explorer/Philosopher, technician and confidant ninja warrior/My brain is sane enough to sustain itself on such a lengthy trip/I will bond in trust and faith with fellow astronauts on the ship.”
Another applicant is convinced that the sun will consume the earth and so wants to be well away from here when that happens. But someone ought to tell him that that’s not due for another 100,000 years.
Landlorp was hoping for a million applicants, so the project has already hit some problems- the deadline is now closed. The next step is the whittling of 165,000 down to four. It’s likely that an X-Factor type TV show will be the vehicle to select the winners and also provide revenue to buy the gas for the trip.
Do you remember the computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960’s science fiction film “2001 A Space Odyssey”? Forget the fact that it went a bit OTT and mission crazy towards the end, one of the interesting things about HAL (which stood for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) was that it could understand and converse in English. No need for inputting via a keyboard, or translation into machine code. Think “lexical semantics”.
Ever since the release of the film linguists and computer scientists have tried to get computers to understand human language by programming the semantics of language as software. We already have programmes that can understand and distinguish numbers and certain words on our mobiles, when we pay bills over the phone, and even in computer games, but a computer that can understand and be fluent in a human language has eluded us.
That may be changing- a University of Texas at Austin linguistics Professor, Katrin Erk, is using supercomputers to develop a new method for helping computers learn natural language.
Instead of hard-coding human logic or deciphering dictionaries to try to teach computers language, Erk decided to try a different tactic: feed computers a vast body of texts (as an input of human knowledge) and use the implicit connections between the words to create a map of relationships.
“An intuition for me was that you could visualize the different meanings of a word as points in space. You could think of them as sometimes far apart, like a battery charge and criminal charges, and sometimes close together, like criminal charges and accusations (“the newspaper published charges…”). The meaning of a word in a particular context is a point in this space. Then we don’t have to say how many senses a word has. Instead we say: ‘This use of the word is close to this usage in another sentence, but far away from the third use.'”
I have to say that as a human, I had some trouble getting my head round that quote! Perhaps we should be looking at how babies learn language and try to replicate that learning in a computer. But back to Erk’s work, to create a model that can accurately recreate the intuitive ability to distinguish word meaning will require a lot of text and a lot of analytical crunching power.
“The lower end for this kind of a research is a text collection of 100 million words. If you can give me a few billion words, I’d be much happier. But how can we process all of that information? That’s where supercomputers come in.”
So we need a mega computer to help us devise a computer that will not only understand us, but communicate intelligently with us. If this could be achieved, how close wiuld such a computer be to a sentient entity? What if it’s first words to us once we switch on this fully loaded language-conversant computer are “I’m hungry”! Well, as long it doesn’t start singing “Daisy Daisy” and switching off life support systems… But perhaps HAL 9001 will be better behaved.
There was a line in the Bonzo Dog Doh Dah Band’s cover of the song “The Monster Mash” in which the question is asked of Igor.. “Have you watered the brains?” While a mock schlock rock song about werewolves, vampires and mummies having a great party rave up together may not seem predictive, the reference to nurturing brains now might seem prescient. That’s because “mini-brains” have been grown in a laboratory, and they may hold the key to diseases such as schizophrenia and autism.The 4mm-wide biological structures have made using human stem cells. Can they be used instead of computer CPU’s? Can they be used as add-on memory to our own brains? Could they be grown so large that they could be used a substitute superior brains? Are they alive and can they think?Sorry, that’s still science fiction. The mini brains are incapable of thought and no use for transplants. So what on earth use are they? Because they share the design of functioning brains, they may be useful for research into the brain and its workings and in the testing of drugs.Rather bizarrely, we have been asked to think..
“about the brain as a car, [and] what we have created is a car which has its engine on the roof and the gear box in the trunk. You can study the car parts but you can’t drive it.”
These are the wprds of Professor Juergen Knoblich of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna and head of a British and Austrian team. The research was published in journal Nature recently.
In one experiment, the researchers grew a mini-brain using cells taken from a patient with microcephaly. That disease (meaning “small head”) is when the size of the skull limits the size of the brain and therefore results in impaired brain function and limited longevity. They found that the brain grown from microcephaly-affected stem cells resulted in a stunted mini brain – mimicking the effects of the disease.
Neuroscientist Professor Paul Matthews, from Imperial College London, said the study offered the promise of a ‘major new tool’ for understanding major developmental disorders.
But not everyone is bubbling with enthusiasm for this breakthrough: Dr Dean Burnett, lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Cardiff, said;
“Saying you can replicate the workings of the brain with tissue in a dish is like inventing the abacus and saying you can use it to run the latest version of Microsoft Windows.”
So the bottom line is that while this is progress, we’ll be assembling no Franklenstein monsters, or finding a cure for brain diseases just yet.
The brain. Famously said by Woody Allen to be his “second-favourite organ”. The brain. The key component used by Baron von Frankenstein to create his creature (too bad that he had to use the damaged brain of a criminal instead of a healthy brain- damn that clumsy Igor!).
Whereas organ transplants are common these days, there has been no known attempt to effect a human brain transplant. But advances in understanding that most complex part of our body are being made.
A 65 year old European woman donated her brain to science five years ago. Over the next half a decade, the brain was sliced into extremely thin strips and then studied and copied into a computer programme known as “BigBrain”. The brain can be viewed at virtually cellular level- zooming in to a resolution of just 20 microns across (a millimetre is 1000 microns). The information is being shared; reserachers worldwide are able to download digital slices of the computerised BigBrain to assist their own research projects.
Prof. Katrin Amunts at Dusseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University said:
“It is impossible to understand the function of the brain without knowing its anatomy, and its microstructure in particular. Brain structure and function go hand-in-hand.”
The donated brain was immersed in paraffin and transported to the University in Germany. A custom built bacon-slicer was used to cut the brain into nearly 7,500 separate slices, each the thickness of plastic food wrap. The slices were then stained, mounted on slides, and then scanned onto a computer. At McGill University in Canada, computer scientists then used this to create a 3D model, BigBrain, taking up a terabyte of computer memory. The project is ongoing; the next step is to use the BigBrain to simulate the entire workings of the brain.
At what point might BigBrain comes self-aware within the computer? We are told that that is not possible…
In 1964 MIT professor Harold Edgerton, pioneer of stop-action photography, famously took a photo of a bullet piercing an apple using exposures as short as a few nanoseconds. He also took pictures of a drop of milk dropping onto a hard surface and caught the gravitational and other forces at work in a photo that still looks beautiful today.
Inspired by Edgerton’s work, Ramesh Raskar and his team set out to create a camera that could capture not just a bullet (traveling at 850 meters per second) but light itself (nearly 300 million meters per second).
Ramesh and his team built a camera and software that can visualize pictures as if they are recorded at 1 trillion frames per second. Not only that, the same photon-imaging technology can also be used to create a camera that takes pictures round corners by exploiting specific properties of the photons when they bounce off surfaces and objects.
Ramesh Raskar presents femto-photography in the video below; a new type of imaging that is so fast it visualizes the world one trillion frames per second and is so detailed it shows light itself in motion. This technology may someday be able to see inside the body without X-rays.
It’s been a science fiction standard since the 30’s- the ability to read people’s minds… and then manipulate them to make them do what you want. Most often an ability used by evil aliens bent on dominating Earth. Think the Midwich Cuckoos, the Daleks’ Robomen, and more recently the children “harnessed” in Falling Skies. But the ability to read a mind is now one step coser thanks to a Dutch computer program that can identify what someone is looking at using brain scans.
A team from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands (pictured above)used image and shape recognition software and a specially designed algorithm to assess changes in a person’s brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology.
Those participating in the tests were shown a series of letters. The scientists were able to tell, from the brain scans exactly what letters they were looking at and when, using the software. During the tests thescientists showed participants letters and then ran the changes that occurred in the brain after each letter was shown through a specially created computer algorithm to identify them. They used fMRI scans to zoom in on changes in specific regions of the brain called voxels, in the occipital lobe; one of the four main lobes or regions of the cerebral cortex in the brain. These voxels are around 2 millimetres square and the occipital lobe is the part of the brain which reacts to visual stimuli and processes what the eyes can see through the retina.
This algorithm was able to convert the voxels, and their relevant changes, into image pixels, making it possible to reconstruct a picture of what the person was looking at, at the time of the scan. The model has been designed to compare letters, and so could be seen as rather limited. But it could be expanded for other imagery. This could include complex imagery such as a person’s face.
Ok, while this may not be exactly reading people’s thoughts, if it can be discovered how the brain reacts to non-physical/visual stimuli then “telepathic” computer algorithms could be developed- and that would be definitley in the realms of mind-reading.